After Sinéad O’Connor’s galvanic performance at last year’s tribute to Curtis Mayfield, Lincoln Center Festival invited her back to put together two concerts of gospel music at Alice Tully Hall. I attended the second concert.
The Irish singer’s work has often dealt with religious themes—one of her albums was titled “Theology.” She is also an avowed fan of gospel artists like The Soul Stirrers and the Blind Boys of Alabama. Indeed, she had two members of those groups on-stage with her, bass player Benjamin Odom and guitarist Sam Butler Jr., respectively, in an excellent band under the direction of composer and pianist Bob Telson (most famous for his score for the Broadway musical “The Gospel at Colonus”). Also in the band was Butch Hayward on organ, Dana D. Shepherd on drums and vocalist Gene Stewart.
O’Connor was dressed in black, with a clerical collar and a large crucifix around her neck. She demonstrated from the opening, an a cappella version of “John the Revelator,” that she is still a powerhouse singer. She then segued into a soulful rendition of “Nobody’s Fault But Mine,” featuring a guitar solo by Butler. O’Connor’s softer moments were sometimes muffled so that “Nearer Blessed Lord” failed to make much of an impression. This seemed attributable to a problem with the mike setup, which was adjusted later in the show, when she accompanied herself on acoustic guitar. The singer had an ecstatic expression throughout the concert and was often dancing to the rhythms. The songs were mostly taken from recordings she admired but had not performed before, such as “Jesus be a Fence Around Me” from the Soul Stirrers and “Praying Ground” from the Blind Boys of Alabama. She had first heard “Pass Me Not” on a field recording. While inspired by traditional sounds, she didn’t always try to replicate them. “Amazing Grace” was completely transformed into an upbeat tune.
A gospel choir, The Inspirational Voices of the Abyssinian Baptist Church, joined for five numbers, ending in a jubilant “Wade in the Water.” O’Connor, Butler and Odom then performed Curtis Mayfield’s “Jesus.” The singer explained that this stripped down version was different than her rendition at the tribute concert in 2012. She promised not to replace Mayfield’s name for Jesus’s, which she had reportedly done the night before, to the displeasure of her guitarist. The singer often introduced the numbers by speaking about the personal significance of the material. She related one song to her having been a battered child.
It was ironic that the best received piece at the show, winning a standing ovation, was “I Believe in You.” She had been booed off the stage at the Bob Dylan 30th Anniversary Concert Celebration in 1992 when she sang this song because of anger after she ripped up the Pope’s photo several weeks earlier on “Saturday Night Live.” O’Connor again stressed her admiration for Dylan by singing his “Property of Jesus” at the Lincoln Center concert.
She came out by herself to perform three encores, two from the “Theology” album and a monk’s prayer. The last was dedicated to the 150 female Catholic priests in the United States. O’Connor may not be a conventional gospel singer, but she is apparently moved by the music and so was the audience.